Friday, August 15, 2014

Andrea Franco-Cook's Current Query Critiqued

Good morning. Today we have Andrea's query again, this time with my feedback, in blue.

The letter:

Dear Agent,

Brief personal opening here-catered to agent.

An ancient evil looms over Soledad Mendoza, although she just doesn't know it. Bonus points for naming your protagonists (I hope) in your opening line, but otherwise this is vague and a bit cliche. Honestly, vague language is the main problem I see with queries that just don't quite work. More on that in a minute. For thirty years the widowed English professor has lived in the sleepy city of Charleston, West Virginia. Good. See how this kind of very specific language works so much better? We still don't have great sense of CHARACTER, but we have some, and we certainly have a clear idea of her situation. Her boredom and loneliness are often drowned in nightly jiggers of scotch and lesson plans. This isn't exactly fair. You can't mention Scotch in a query and not have me love it. But all this changes when her father's sudden death plunges her into a supernatural war, and a secret family history that began in a Mayan jungle during the sixteenth-century. Whoa, okay.

So, as opening paragraphs go, this is really uneven. It starts out vague, and with little sense of CHARACTER, but then slowly starts to improve, revealing at least a specific situation, and a character of good taste, if boring evenings, and then it kind of goes nuts.

You are also lacking a consistent sense of voice and tone. Up until the final sentence of this paragraph, it sounds like this book will be a quiet literary character study of a lonely widowed English professor. You know, something almost Franzen-esque, but then suddenly at the end here, you reveal a much more exciting story, with loads of potential conflict brought on by an unique and fascinating inciting incident. You don't want to surprise readers like this. Try to see if you can work that kind of supernatural thriller type tone into your opening lines as well.

Enter U.S. Senator Earl Edmondson Ugh. Not a query level issue so much as a story level one, but alliteration in character names always makes me cringe a little—a friend of her late father and a key power player in this war. His pact with a malevolent god all but assures the senator's ascendance to the presidency. However, his unholy aspirations are threatened when he discovers Soledad is set to inherit the Ouroboros amulet—a mystical weapon of indescribable power.

Hmm. This is getting kind of cool, but I have to say the dichotomy between how this query starts out (contemporary, normal, realistic world) and where it is now still feels jarring. Obviously all stories, even paranormal ones, start out in a somewhat comfortable beginning before the STORY/CONFLICT/PLOT begins, but that doesn't mean you want the query to work that way.

Just as her enemies are converging, in walks a Mayan winged-god, Whoa. Um ... okay. First, it should be "winged Mayan god." Unless winged-god is some kind of specific god-type in the world of your story, those adjectives are out of order. But otherwise, this is pretty cool. I hope he's hot. who may be her salvation or her damnation. He claims to have been her family's protector for centuries, but Soledad soon realizes she is merely a pawn in the god's supernatural game of treachery. As she struggles with her new found responsibility, Soledad must accept her fate and use the amulet against Edmondson if she hopes to stop him from taking over the White House. There's just one problem, her father took the weapon's location to his grave.

Oh. She doesn't even have it yet? Damn. That sucks.

Okay, so ... this query has a lot of cool elements. You actually end with a pretty good sense of a sadistic CHOICE. It could be a little clearer, but it's not bad. I won't nitpick this paragraph, but will try to cover the big picture in my summary.

Pawn of The Gods PAWN OF THE GODS is a completed 95,000 word Adult Urban Fantasy novel, and it is the first of a planned series. This tale of an ordinary English professor who is caught in a battle between good and evil flashes back and forth between the Sixteenth and twenty-first centuries, blending Spanish history with Mayan lore and apocalyptic Christian beliefs.

This is actually pretty good housekeeping, brief and to the point.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Andrea Franco-Cook

Okay, so in summary, this query has a lot of the elements that make queries great: clear CONFLICT, a sense of a tough CHOICE to be made, specific scenarios and situations, but it isn't quite gelling for me as is.

The biggest problem is your opening. "Widowed," "English professor," "sleepy city," these are all things that happen to Soledad, or positions she holds, are settings she is in. Drinking Scotch while being bored and lonely grading papers at night is really the only sense of CHARACTER we get for your protagonist.

That is not enough!

The most important thing in any query letter (frankly, in any STORY) is CHARACTER. If we don't care about your character, and sympathize with her as a person, we're not going to care (or at least not as much) about what happens to her or whether she succeeds at whatever she's trying to accomplish.

CONFLICT and CHOICE are great, and they are important, and you even cover them pretty well here, but we've got almost no sense of who Soledad is before her story starts. Sure, we can infer some things from her situation, and by the fact that she reacts to it by drinking alone with her boredom, but we need more, and we need it right up front in this query.

That's it.

What do you all think? Any other suggestions?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It does begin very normal and needs that supernatural worked in sooner. Plus everything in the first couple lines could be wrapped up in one for more effect.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Great critique, Matt! I get what you mean about "widowed" + "sleepy town" being Soledad's circumstances and not WHO she is. It is SO HARD to nail character and voice in a few brief lines in a query. But I know Andrea can do it, because I've seen earlier versions of this query, and she has already strengthened it so much.

It might take 17 tries (it was something like that for me ...) but eventually she's going to hit the right opening. (And then wonder why it took her so long, because she'll know it's perfect when she sees it!)

Matthew MacNish said...

17 tries ain't half bad! It took me MANY more than that before I had any sense of what turned a decent query into a great one.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

So, I agree with Matthew that the word choice in the first paragraph doesn't really fit the rest of the query, however, I actually like that it begins kind of normal—a story about a normal history professor living in a quiet town—and then each paragraph builds on that, adding more and more weirdness. The challenge, I think, is making that first paragraph dynamic enough that it keeps an agent reading so that they make it to the second paragraph.

The other problem I see is a lot of weak writing and passive voice.

"However, his unholy aspirations are threatened when he discovers Soledad is set to inherit the Ouroboros amulet—a mystical weapon of indescribable power."

This sentence is a good example. The passive voice ("are threatened") robs it of urgency. And never describe anything as indescribable if you can help it. You're a writer. Figure out a way to describe it. And, personally, this just screams McGuffin.

On the whole, the story sounds interesting and definitely something I'd want to read, but you need to make sure your query matches the excitement and drama of the book.

mshatch said...

I think the first paragraph needs to offer more about Soledad's character. Why is she lonely? Why is she drinking too much? what has led her to this place? Then the rest follows more naturally. Of course she's going to jump at the chance at something more exciting than grading papers, especially if there's a Mayan winged-God running around.

Great crit, Matt.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Everything Matt said.

Also a little nitpick about your final paragraph, you don't need to say it's ADULT UF. Just say it's Urban Fantasy. The only time you need to list the category is if you're writing kidlit (YA, MG etc)

For me, i have a bit of a disconnect with the third paragraph. This is a POV switch, from the MC to the antagonist. It doesn't quite work for me. It would be much better to see this information through the lense of Soledad. Ie: having her discover this information, instead of having you, the author, just telling us about it. If that makes sense.

Good luck!

Patchi said...

I might be totally off, but I'm wondering if the Mayan god wouldn't work better in the opening paragraph. Something like:

Widowed English professor Soledad Mendoza has spent thirty years drowned in nightly jiggers of scotch and lesson plans in the sleepy city of Charleston, West Virginia when in walks a Mayan winged-god who may be her salvation or her damnation.

Just a thought.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

First of all, I want to thank Matt for taking the time to provide such a thorough critique. He really hit on some great points. I intend to incorporate all his suggestions during revisions.

I really thought the opening line about the ancient evil looming over Soledad without her knowledge, set the tone. Then I tried to convey the reason she was in the dark. I guess the message isn't clear enough. I want to show her as a normal person who is suddenly thrown into a battle between a good and evil. Back to the drawing board.

Also, thank you to everyone who stopped in and commented on my query. I will also take your suggestions to heart.

Anonymous said...

I learn more from you each time you do this queries!!